The Rowing Lesson
Harold Klein was a skinny Jewish South African kid with a hard-working general store proprietor father and a high-strung mother. He wants to be a doctor, and he thinks about sex—a lot. At the end of his long life he’s in the hospital, unconscious, surrounded by machines and tubes. We witness the review of his life, including his years as a doctor, and a lot of thoughts about sex, through the mind of his estranged, pregnant daughter, Betsy, who flies from New York City to Johannesburg to say goodbye. Betsy’s memories of childhood are interspersed with the story of Harold’s life, and the two weave a story of growing up and maturing in the changing cultural landscape of South Africa, from the 1940s to, presumably, the present.
Many of the reveries take place on or in the water, driving home the theme of motion, change, and often, one’s lack of control. While the language is languid and the images dreamlike, it also serves to confuse; rarely are names used, with the pronoun “you” serving as both the subject and the audience for the memories. This makes it difficult to track whose story is being told—Betsy’s or Harold’s—with the “you” changing even within single paragraphs. Near-death experiences, or the thoughts of those watching a loved one die, may well have influenced this confusing flow of emotions and non-linear narratives, but reading page after page of memories with no road map, or (to stay with the aquatic theme) with no oar, becomes taxing. Anne Landsman does a wonderful job of evoking the times, places, and people of Harold Klein’s life, and, if one can fall into the lulling voice of Betsy’s stream of consciousness, it’s a beautiful story.